In our present moment, many people marvel at how interconnected the world is. For example, a person might travel to their local supermarket and sample foods from all over the globe – oranges from Israel, asparagus from Argentina. Anyone might marvel (admittedly decreasingly so) to pick up his or her shoes and find they were made in China. It is not hard to travel to a local video store or buy a satellite connection to sample cinema and television from other parts of the world, to read literature from foreign authors, or to listen to international styles of music. An average person can easily find a Pen pal, so as to interact with someone far away. Finally, it is relatively easy to travel to most of the different countries on the globe.
It is my hope to prove that the idea of an interconnected world is not novel. Indeed, many “globalized worlds” have existed before.
Beginning in the ancient world, these interconnected worlds were first created by political processes (by which I mean force of arms). Alexander’s conquests are a primary instance. Although short lived, the empire that Alexander created built Hellenized kingdoms throughout the world he was aware of. Some of these kingdoms lasted for hundreds of years. Later on, another state, Rome, would annex the entire Mediterranean, as well as parts of northern Europe and the Levant. Formally, the Eastern Roman Empire, outlasted its original Western counterpart, lingering until 1453, but interestingly the Russian monarchy considered itself a spiritual successor to Romania.
These political units created “globalized worlds” because of the homogeneity they brought to their provinces, whether it would be a Greek or Roman cultural scheme. Although trade networks and connections had existed in the Mediterranean as long as people had, this added uniformity allowed travelers to have an easier time of navigating foreign lands. As the Roman historian McInerney says, a Legionnaire could travel from a camp in Britain to a camp in Palestine and know exactly where his tent was located without even seeing the camp’s plans. This kind of sameness is not exactly cosmopolitan, nor is it supposed to be evocative of today’s world, but it allowed global actors to know what to expect when traversing new lands, which made them that much more likely to interact with others and spread ideas. Furthermore, these states, projected over large areas, did much to directly sure that their empires were connected, if only to ensure that tribute and enrichment could arrive at the center. These actions were not limited to rooting out pirates and highwaymen.
The sociologist Abu-Lughod tells us of a gentler globalized world that existed during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Her “world system” connected Europe to China through paths not limited to a singular Silk Road. Central to this argument was the participation of the Muslim Caliphate, which stretched from North Africa to Baghdad. Some have suggested the Caliphate to be an early analogue of the European Union; although there are key differences, it was possible, if you could enter one part of it, to travel through the Muslim lands without fear of danger from the states within. Geniza documents found in Egypt prove that individuals throughout the Mediterranean world often communicated with each other over vast distances. It was not even uncommon for a man to move from say, Baghdad to Sicily in his lifetime. Anyway, the Silk Road is not to be seen as a simply a vector on which culture was spread. Silks, dyes, and spices were indeed transacted, but people, on an individual level, were given the opportunity to speak with each other and add to their awareness that the world was much bigger than the village or town in which they were born.
The Spanish and Europeans, whose naval technology allowed them to bypass the Middle East and set up their Colonial empires, eventually outclassed the Caliphate. Ironically, the acts of European colonialists sometimes uncovered more globalism in areas they considered to be barbarous, or at least out of the way. As Kwame Anthony Appiah reports, British soldiers uncovered a great deal from a palace in Ghana when they sacked it:
“Books in many languages… Bohemian Glass, clocks, silver plate, old furniture, Persian rugs, Kidderminster carpets, pictures and engravings, numberless chests and coffins...specimens of Moorish and Ashantee handicraft…yataghans and scimitars of Arabic make, Damask bed-curtains and counterpanes, English engravings, an oil painting of a gentleman, an old uniform of a West Indian soldier, brass blunderbusses, prints from illustrated newspapers, and, among much else, copies of the London times…for 17 October 1843.”This sacking took place in 1874.
If indeed such interconnected “globalized worlds” did exist in the past, then why do we study globalization here as a separate and distinct field? It is our belief that the recent changes in the Post-War Era are qualitatively different from everything that has happened before. While globalization does affect different people unevenly, the current change in the world it produces has never been faster than it is today. With a wider plane of interaction, people have great opportunities to share their perspectives on life.
We hope you’ll be tuning in, as we at Penn Globalization Studies try to figure exactly what these changes are.